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Use this framework to manage marketing communications

Semiotics is the study of signs (images, graphics, shapes, text etc) and their meanings to customers and potential customers. Although it had its origins in sociology and anthropology in the late nineteenth century, it wasn't until the 1970s and 80s that it was picked up by marketers as a useful tool for understanding communications.

Semiotics is the study of the meanings that are attached to things by signs. This is an important concept in marketing as signs can be used to create a brand and they can also, on occasions, get out-of-control and change brand perceptions.


Signs are anything that act as a code to consumers. They could be a graphics, words, colours, and combinations of these things.  A brand is an important code for a company as it is by this that most customers will recognise it. The brand will carry connotations that influence people's likelihood to buy it. Understanding these feelings through the study of semiotics helps marketers direct and manage brands and communications.


Take Starbucks for example. Conventional market research could ask people what they think of Starbucks, why they go there, what they think of the competition and so on. All this would generate useful information. Semiotics would approach the subject in a different way. It would look at the culture of coffee drinking, the desire for people to take their coffee in the company of others, and the significance of being part of a "Starbucks tribe" when carrying a branded coffee cup down the street. Semiotics provides a context and understanding that goes beyond simple data analysis.

When a company creates a brand, it aims to trigger an awareness and positive emotions. The design of the brand (its shape, colour and any associated words) produces a sign which semiotics argues will trigger a response. People will develop a feeling about the brand, hopefully in a direction that was intended by all the signage (the semiotics).


However, events and cultural differences can respond to the brand and its signage in different ways. Thus, although a brand owner will aim to impose semiotic constraints on its brand, it can't stop consumers creating their own sign chains which could change the brand position. In this way, Burberry, a conservative upper class and established brand was adopted by lower class white hooligans labelled by the media as "chavs". Semiotics associated with Burberry changed the culture driven codes by consumer dominance and required a considerable effort and cost by the Burberry company to get it back on track. They did this by removing the check pattern, so characteristic of the brand, because it was this that had most appeal to the chavs.

Semiotics can be a powerful tool for companies to enhance their communication, branding, and overall growth strategies. Here are eight ways in which semiotics can be used to grow a company and its brand:

Brand identity and logo design: Semiotics can be used in logo design, especially by devising symbolic meanings. The colour schemes, typestyle and visual elements of the logo and brand identity will convey values, personality and essence of the brand.

Product packaging and design: Here semiotics can use iconic elements, colour and symbols to make product packaging easily recognisable and associated with positive meanings.

Advertising and marketing campaigns: Semiotics can be used to convey a deeper meanings to target audiences and connect with them on an emotional level. Symbols can have different meanings in various cultures and it is important to understand these so that there is no misinterpretation.

Website and digital presence: As with other forms of advertising and promotion, the use of images, icons and layout will create a website that communicates the brands messaging.

Analysis of competitors: A semiotic analysis of competitors, branding and communication may identify gaps or opportunities to differentiate your brand through unique symbols and meanings.

Customer engagement: User generated content that incorporates your brand symbols can enhance engagement with customers. Try and engage in conversations with customers that revolve around the symbolic meanings of your brand.

Innovation: Explore symbols and signs that represent your company as a technological leader and innovator.

Employee culture and brand alignment: Ensure that employees understand the symbolic meanings of your brand. Provide training on semiotics, so that employees understand and better apply your brand guidelines.

Incorporating semiotics into various aspects of business strategy can contribute to building a strong and resonant brand, fostering customer loyalty, and facilitating company growth. The key is to be mindful of the cultural and contextual meanings associated with symbols and signs, ensuring that they align positively with the brand's objectives and values.

Some things to think about:

  • Semiotics reach into our emotions. To what extent are you using semiotics to communicate with your customers and potential customers? What images and associations does your logo and brand guidelines generate in customer's minds?

  • How could you improve the perceived culture of your company by using icons, colour and images? How could you do this internally and externally?

  • Do any of your competitors use semiotics in the development of their images? In what way can you use semiotics to gain a competitive advantage?

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